In the cultural expressions of any people, you will find references to the larger formative influences of that culture. For instance, movies from India’s Bollywood will acknowledge a Hindu backstory. Chinese local government structures reflect centuries of feudal dynasties.
In the literature of Britain and the United States, it is impossible to ignore the pervasive influence of the King James Bible (KJV). In his recent book, Pen of Iron, Robert Alter argues that the style of the KJV has “influenced the prose and literary voice of several American authors”, including Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Ernest Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) and Cormac McCarthy (The Road). Word choices, syntax, rhythms and more can be traced to the KJV.
The first example Alter quotes is the most famous speech in American history—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
“Why does Lincoln say “four score and seven years ago” rather than 87? The locution alludes to “three score and ten,” a phrase that appears in the King James Bible more than 100 times. Like other Bible-derived phrases from Lincoln’s public speaking—”a house divided against itself cannot stand” is perhaps the most famous—the biblical cadences of the Gettysburg Address confer “weight and solemnity.”
But I was most intrigued by reviewer Stephen Miller’s closing observation:
Will 21st-century American novelists be influenced by the King James Bible—or any other version? Mr. Alter notes that “the Pilgrims, and their descendants for many generations, were Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk,” but the popularity of the Bible waned by the end of the nineteenth century. Though of course it looms large in the lives of church-going Americans, “we no longer have a culture pervaded by Scripture, where . . . the active memories of ordinary people are stocked with many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of phrases and verses from the canonical texts.” It looks as if, to keep this classic work of English prose alive, it will have to be read in school.
So, our heritage is of “Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk”, but now “we no longer have a culture pervaded by Scripture.” Why? Some of that reflects the increasing secularization of our culture and the decreasing percentage of our population that identifies themselves as Christian. But we still have a significant number of self-identified Christ-followers in this country, so it may say even more about the lack of emphasis on spiritual formation and intentional disciple-making by evangelicals. We have not done an effective job of training our people to know and love God’s Word.
If we are not Bible-steeped –soaking our minds and hearts in Scripture like a tea bag in hot water—we should not be surprised if the “taste” of the Bible does not evidence itself in our art. So, it’s important that we encourage Bible memorization, meditation and application, practically training our people how to saturate themselves with Scripture. (And no, it doesn’t have to be the KJV. Language has changed and so excellent translations like the ESV, NASB, NIV or NLT can also grab hold of hearts.)
But then, we need to find a way to unleash our evangelical people to creatively express the Bible’s truths, rhythms and syntax in all arenas of culture—especially in the arts. It’s crucial that Christ-followers be encouraged towards involvement in film-making, screenwriting for television and movies, writing novels, penning essays like social commentary, speechwriting, speech-making and more.
It has been well-said that those who control the stories we tell control the direction of a culture.
It is equally true that the words we choose shape the stories we tell.
If those words echo God’s Word, we may restock our memories with the Bible’s truth and recapture some momentum towards becoming a culture pervaded by Scripture.
And a culture pervaded by Scripture will press people towards Jesus and His gospel at every turn.
And that will be good, very good, for four score and seven years– and more.